Sudhir Kakar, My Secular Mentor

A rare psychologist of Indian culture, Sudhir Kakar leaves behind seminal works that will have relevance for many generations

Photo: Getty Images
Sudhir Kakar (1938-2024) Photo: Getty Images

Noted scholar and world-renowned Indian psychologist of our times, Sudhir Kakar, who passed away recently, has left behind many seminal works that will have relevance for many generations. I first met Kakar at the South Asian Institute, Heidelberg University, Germany, where I was a student. At the time, he was a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin. Professor Dietmar Rothermund, Europe’s foremost historian on South Asia, also served as my academic referee, and had invited him to deliver a talk at the Institute. Kakar spoke on the Hindu-Muslim conflict based on the research for his book, The Colors of Violence. I consider Kakar’s The Colors of Violence (first published in 1995) as his most prominent contribution to the study of ethnic violence in India. In the acknowledgements of the book, he notes that he wrote the book at the Berlin Institute, though the plan to write the book took shape when he was hosted by the Committee of Human Development and Divinity School at the University of Chicago, USA. I am so fond of the book that I possess three copies—each with a different cover! In this book, he has applied a psychological approach to examine the Hindu-Muslim violence. Not only is it the first book that applied this method in the study of riots in India, it also remains the most pioneering work on the subject till today.

After the talk that day, he spent some time with us at the cafeteria of the Institute where we had a very animated conversation on the Hindu-Muslim issue. Since I moved to the US afterwards for higher studies, I lost touch with him. It was sometime around 2008 or so, when I reconnected with him during a meeting at the India International Centre (IIC), New Delhi. We spent some time at a restaurant in Lodi Garden and deliberated on many critical dimensions of various writings on contemporary India, most prominently on the Hindu-Muslim question. It was the post-Sachar moment in India. There was considerable national and global interest on the subject. Having noticed my interest in the subject, he introduced me to Italian Ambassador Roberto Toscano and suggested my name for a soon-to-be-held conference in New Delhi. Ambassador Toscano had a deep intellectual interest in India, and I had the honour of being part of the conference that Reset—an Europe-based organisation—hosted at the time, and several other conferences that were held in New Delhi and Europe, particularly the one held in Venice, Italy, which was attended by many scholars such as Will Kymlicka, Ananya Vajpeyi, Rajeev Bhargava, Rowena Robinson, the late Suresh Sharma and politician Sandeep Dixit.

A few more words about his book The Colors of Violence would be useful at this stage. For anyone who has even a modicum of interest in the subject of the Hindu-Muslim violence, this book is a must-read. Kakar considers this book as a “psychoanalyst’s exploration of what is commonly known as religious conflict”. In other words, he was a strong advocate for inter-disciplinary research. But as we all know, the study of Hindu-Muslim riots or communalism in its early years of post-Independent India was mainly seen as the prerogative of historians. His work clearly challenged that academic taboo.

The research for The Colors of Violence was motivated by seeing a photograph in a newspaper accompanying a report on Hindu-Muslim riots in Hyderabad in December 1990. He shares vivid details of the kind of impact this photograph had on him. At one point he writes, “I cannot empathize with the child because I must defend myself against her pathos. The girl’s face, then, is not haunting but nagging, like a child beggar or a leper with his insidious whine, evoking an angry guilt that will not let you shout at the wretch. Disappear! Die!”

What should an analyst do? What should be an analyst’s sensibility? Here, Kakar offers a very valuable suggestion. He writes that the core of the analyst’s sensibility does not lie in clinical expertise or in a specific way of observing and interpreting people’s words and actions. He resolves this by claiming: the core is empathy. He further elaborates empathy in the following words, “Empathy is the bridge between the serene reserve of the clinician striving for objectivity and the vital, passionate and vulnerable person who inhabits the clinician’s body.”

As we are in the middle of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, which many consider the most crucial since Independence, his book, The Indians: Portrait of a People (2007), co-authored with his wife Katharina Kakar, is worth remembering. In this book, I found two chapters deeply insightful: one titled The Inner Experience of Caste and the other, Indian Women: Traditional and Modern. In their analysis of caste, they conclude, “The hierarchical thinking associated with caste continues to remain influential in the middle class thinking.”

After I settled down in Delhi upon returning from America, I was hosting book talks on behalf of the E M Forster Society that I had set up in south Delhi. Many noted writers took part in the book discussions I hosted. I extended an invitation to him for a discussion on his book, The Crimson Throne, a work of fiction. He kindly accepted and we had a wonderful event.

After the 2014 elections that led to Narendra Modi’s victory, I had the opportunity to present a paper on the Indian elections at Max Planck Institute, Berlin. My host and noted historian Margrit Pernau wanted me to write a paper pertaining to emotions. In this connection, I wrote to him to suggest some writings on emotions. He recommended a few books which I used in the paper I wrote and presented.

Kakar was a multi-faceted personality with an extraordinarily creative mind. He settled down in Goa, which denied me the opportunity to see him as often as I would have liked to. As my new book, Shikwa-e-Hind: The Political Future of Indian Muslims (Simon & Schuster, 2024), hits stands this month, I look at his decision to leave this complex world with great sadness. I wish he was alive in this world, and without doubt he would have been pleased to see my book. For me, he was a mentor and a great source of inspiration. And a very secular scholar and person—a vanishing species in new India. And I am certain his legacy will remain alive in the writings of countless new generations of scholars and writers as indispensable sources.

(Views expressed are personal)

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

(This first appeared in the print as 'My Secular Mentor')